by Kevin Meagher
There’s a lot of ‘whatifery’ around the Labour party at the moment. What if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected with a bigger majority? What if there’s a snap general election? What if there’s a serious attempt to impose mandatory reselections on sitting Labour MP?
Here’s a more abstract thought for the start of the traditional silly season: what if Andy Burnham, rather than Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader last July?
Clearly Corbyn romped home with 65 per cent of the vote, so it wasn’t exactly a close-run thing, but Burnham was second (meaning this counter-factual is not outside the realms of plausibility).
Looking back, it now seems quite unbelievable that intelligent people ever thought Liz Kendall was in with a shout of winning. Her derisory 4.5 per cent of the vote – fewer than one in twenty eventually backed her – was a cataclysmic defeat.
It doesn’t reflect on her as a person or as a smart, effective politician. The neo-Blairite flag she marched to war under was utterly cursed from the start. It was a drubbing the likes of which the party’s right has never faced before.
Yvette Cooper, representing that uncharismatic, technocratic Brownite tradition, was thoroughly worthy and utterly uninspiring. The party’s new recruits were drunk on full-bodied ideology and didn’t want her half-strength version.
Only Burnham seemed to read which way the party’s grassroots were heading and tacked to the left.
Shamelessly, many would say, but it doesn’t matter. The urge to hold the party together by reaching out and pulling enough support away from Corbyn in order to try and run the party from the centre-left, instead of the hard-left, was the right one.
(Who knows, if Kendall and Cooper had done likewise, perhaps it would have reduced Corbyn’s point-of-difference advantage and discouraged the flood of ‘three quid trots’ from infiltrating the party).
To a big chunk of the Westminster cognoscenti Burnham is an inveterate flip-flopper who changes his position to suit his audience. But better, surely, a flip-flopper than a rigid dogmatist like Corbyn? And even his detractors would have to acknowledge Burnham’s personal decency as one of the nicest people in British politics.
This really matters. The deteriorating personal relationships in the parliamentary party, increasingly played out on social media, are poisoning Labour from the head down. Jeremy Corbyn, purveyor of ‘kinder, gentler politics’ clearly believes in no such thing. (We know this because he’s currently leaving his henchmen to smear Owen Smith).
If he’d been able to head-off Corbyn, Burnham would have applied balm to the party’s wounds, stretching every sinew to keep all the various factions together, (an increasingly unlikely scenario at the moment). He would have blended the talents of all sections of opinion and tried to shape an agenda that kept Labour competitive.
At the moment, the party is reduced to scrap. The frontbench resembles a particularly hard-hit First World War battalion, where corporals have been promoted to officers because all the other ranks have been cut down. By any measure, it is the least able and credible shadow ministerial team since the parliamentary party was first formed.
But if you’re Jeremy Corbyn you don’t let a small matter like this detract you from building ‘The New Politics’.
Which is, of course, ‘The Very Old Politics’.
It involves cocooning the party in moral simplicity and political certainty while Labour loses election after election. And still the Corbynistas will emerge from their shells chirruping on about the “neo-liberal consensus” and how they only lost because of the right-wing media but that, hey, eight and a half million votes for socialism is a great start.
Burnham would have kept Labour positioned as a potential party of government. For all his famous disdain for the “Westminster bubble” he is a creature of it and although there would have been grumbling about him playing to the gallery, by making more space for the left than the other leadership challengers would have done, Burnham would have still managed to keep Labour looking competent and plausible. Currently, it is neither.
A Burnham-led Labour party might not have prevented Brexit. It might not have won the next general election. But it would have kept the show on the road. It would certainly have provided a platform to build future success. Labour would not have become the basket-case it currently is, or a haven for cybertrots, Home Counties lefties and MacBook revolutionaries.
In another twelve months’ time, Burnham will, in all likelihood, be the first metro mayor of Greater Manchester and one of the few Labour people in the country running anything of any importance. Good luck to him.
But what a shame he’s not otherwise engaged.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut